Are You Up to The Challenge? 2 Questions to Predict How Well You Will Handle an Emergency

In 2009, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the icy Hudson River after the engines failed. All of the passengers and crew survived. The incident is known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.”

The word “miracle” suggests divine intervention but Sullenberger’s decidedly grounded mindset during the emergency underscores the value of earthly experience and skill. Sullenberger is certainly a hero but it was more than heroism that enabled him to do what he did. Research helps explain how Sullenberger rose to the challenge.

How pilots respond to a stressful situation was the subject of a recent study of commercial airline pilots in a flight simulator exercise. Two simple questions predicted how the pilots would react:

  1. “How demanding do you expect the task to be?”
  2. “How able are you to cope with the demands of the task?”

The pilots scored their answer to each question on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 6 (extremely). The difference between the two provided a single measure of whether the pilots interpreted the forthcoming emergency as a challenge (when coping ability outweighs demands) or a threat (coping ability insufficient for the demands).

The important finding was that this single measure accurately predicted how well the pilots subsequently coped with the engine failure during the flight simulation. Pilots who rated the upcoming situation as more of a threat tended to perform worse than those who rated it more as a challenge.

In other words, those who felt up to the challenge did better.

What the pilots paid attention to during the emergency was particularly important. The pilots who felt threatened during the crisis were looking in the wrong places whereas those who felt up to the task focused on the right controls.

The study has implications for pilot training and beyond the cockpit. Approaching an obstacle or crisis with both competence and confidence can make a sizeable difference in how you weather a storm.


I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman